Inside Napa Valley's Ubuntu Restaurant
Photo: Coral von Zumwalt
Purple radishes with mushroom "caviar"…asparagus with creamy slices of chèvre and nori "mayonnaise"…and would you believe a sumptuous carrot-based mac and cheese? Dorothy Allison (who never met a vegetarian meal she didn't want to chase down with a burger) visits a Napa Valley restaurant where the cooking is so seductive, so full of surprises, it could change the way we all think about food.I like vegetables, I do. But I grew up in the South eating vegetables that had been cooked so far past recognizable that a girlfriend once accused me of serving her green bean sauce rather than actual green beans. She was right, of course. Southern cooks destroy about as many vegetables as we touch. We overcook them, drown them in cream sauce, mistreat them.
I have also been through two solid decades of feminist gatherings dominated by potluck vegetarian meals and radical lectures that cast meat-eating as a sin, vegetables as a virtue. It is no wonder that I have found myself uncomfortable with vegetarian cooking and resentful of an austerity that makes what is not on the plate loom larger than what is.
No matter that I have lived in California for 20 years and learned to love the crisp snap of lightly sautéed snow peas. I remain partial to pan gravy and anything that can be wrapped in bacon. But those meals, for me, are always accompanied by that sense of guilt—a frailty common to those of us who would stop for a fast food hamburger on the way home from the vegetarian potluck. If I were a good girl, I am sure, I would be skinny and a vegetarian. I am neither, and am alternately fiercely proud and woefully chagrined.
So when I started hearing about Ubuntu, a Napa Valley phenomenon that combines a highly praised "vegetable" restaurant with a yoga studio—and that has been listed as one of the ten best new American restaurants in The New York Times, with a chef who was nominated for a 2009 James Beard Foundation Award—I was both intrigued and disconcerted. Would Ubuntu be the kind of place a skeptic like me could visit comfortably?
I decided to make a reservation and find out.
"They don't serve meat, but you don't miss it," was what I had heard from a friend who lived up the valley from the restaurant and had been there. "It's vegetable, not vegetarian." She could have been quoting a press release, but I still wasn't clear on the concept.
Ubuntu is a Zulu term South Africans translate as "humanity toward others," but its deeper meaning addresses the concept of harmony between the land and the people who share that land. Owner Sandy Lawrence, who produced international investment conferences before she founded the restaurant, wanted to put that philosophy into practice by drawing on all that makes Napa unique—the long growing season, the marvelous wines, and the artisans who produce everything from exquisite local-wood tabletops to rich and delicate cheeses. The initial impulse to open the restaurant hit her one night in August 2006. She tells the story of how on that summer evening, after hosting a yoga class at her Napa home, she wanted to provide a relaxing meal for everyone and started calling around to local restaurants. She finally found one that promised to serve a vegetarian meal, which turned out to mean they'd offer shrimp risotto and "leave off the shrimp"—not at all what she had in mind. When Lawrence opened Ubuntu, in 2007, she decided that calling it a "vegetable" restaurant might help overcome some of the prejudices and misunderstandings associated with vegetarian food.